I’VE just seen the 1999 film version of Trevor Nunn’s London stage revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical Oklahoma, starring Hugh Jackman – who was then pretty well unknown. He makes a great Curly and to be honest I might prefer his relaxed singing in this film to his acclaimed role as Valjean in the latest adaptation of Les Miserables, though of course he is excellent in that too. Anyway, seeing the London revival of Oklahoma! reminded me that I wrote a piece about the 1955 film for the musicals countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website, so I thought I’d re-post it here, and will add a few thoughts about the Trevor Nunn version at the end, plus links to the two different versions of my favourite song from the show. (I’ve never actually seen the musical on stage, but would really love to do if I get the chance).
Rodgers and Hammerstein were surely second to none when it came to creating musical scores full of great standards – and Oklahoma! is one of their finest. The 1955 film’s 145-minute running time is packed with unforgettable numbers like the title song, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, People will Say We’re In Love, I Cain’t Say No, and, of course, the stunning opening song, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. The story of this Western musical romance at first seems very simple and impossibly sunny, not to mention a little old-fashioned, as two very different young girls in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century are each courted by two rival men. However, there are some darker themes amid all that sunshine and ripening corn, with occasional shadow-filled scenes showing the way forward to R&H’s Carousel, filmed the following year, which again starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.
Laurey (Shirley Jones) is obviously made for boy next door Curly (Gordon Macrae), but is also being wooed, or stalked, by older, sinister farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, fickle Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, looking completely different from her roles in film noir!) just cain’t decide whether she should marry adoring cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) or plump for flirtatious peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). What she doesn’t realise is that the peddler is even more fickle than she is.
On stage in 1943, the musical was a sensation, and, with its achingly nostalgic portrayal of a traditional and often idyllic way of life, it struck a particular chord with audiences in wartime. Sadly, though, as with so many great stage musicals, there was a long delay before the show finally made it to the silver screen, in the middle of the Cold War – and in the meantime others had copied some of its innovations. Oklahoma! is said to be the first show which featured a dream ballet sequence, and also the first one where the score was completely integrated into the narrative, with no unconnected songs thrown in. Yet by the time it was released in the cinema, 12 years on, many other films had featured dream ballets, most famously An American in Paris, and integrated scores had also become something taken for granted.
Although it might seem like an MGM musical, Oklahoma! was in fact made by the independent Magma Theatre Corporation, and produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, giving them greater control over the finished result. I’ve read that Rodgers held off from filming because he felt that some of his earlier shows had not been done justice on film, and he wanted to ensure this one kept its great score. (Only a couple of the original stage songs were cut for the screen.) Also the delay helped to ensure a successful tour of the stage production once its Broadway run had ended. The late release might have meant the film missed its ideal moment, but it did give musical films a shot in the arm just when they were starting to struggle, and helped to ensure that studios went on releasing more lavishly-produced titles in this vein over the next few years.
Oklahoma! itself had a massive $6.8million budget, meaning it could be largely filmed on location rather than amid cheap-looking backdrops. Arizona was actually used for filming, because it was hard to find unspoilt rural areas in Oklahoma in the 1950s – I’m told the mountain scenery isn’t very similar to Oklahoma, but it looks beautiful, anyway. That corn “as high as an elephant’s eye” had to be specially grown for the film, as it was made out of season. According to the imdb: “The job was given to the people of the University of Arizona Agricultural Department, who planted each stalk in individual containers and held their breath. With rain and good luck, the corn grew to a height of 16 feet, causing Oscar Hammerstein to quip: “The corn is now as high as the eye of an elephant on top of another elephant.” Cinemascope and the rival Todd-AO widescreen format were used to create two different versions of the film, which celebrated the sweeping landscapes in gorgeous colour. The aim is to create a feeling of what the production was like on stage, and a lot of the time the cameras hold off to show the numbers from a distance, though they do move in to give greater intimacy in some numbers, like Curly and Laurey’s duet People Will Say We’re In Love. Choreographer Agnes de Mille’s dance numbers are sometimes said to be old-fashioned, but look great to me, especially the dream ballet. It’s odd to think that MacRae and Jones were replaced by professional dancers for this sequence, but Rod Steiger had to dance his own role because nobody else really looked like him, even from the back!
Director Fred Zinneman was a surprising choice to helm a musical, as his previous hits were dramas like From Here to Eternity and the great Western High Noon. I can’t see much similarity between those films and Oklahoma! for the most part, but at times the tension does pick up, particularly in the scenes involving farmhand Jud Fry, played with a simmering intensity by Rod Steiger. Steiger is a surprising choice to star in a musical (and it seems he does actually sing rather than being dubbed!) but he is great at portraying this weird loner. One of the best scenes in the film must be the one where Curly goes into the dark, shadowy barn where Jud lives, and goads him/appeals to his self-pity with thoughts of his death, in the song Pore Jud is Daid. All the way through, the song insults Jud and appeals to his vanity both at once.
Although Jones and MacRae definitely have the best voices in the film, the most memorable performances are possibly those given by Steiger and an amazingly unglamorous Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie. Grahame couldn’t really sing but her songs were pieced together from various takes, rather than being dubbed, and the results are hilarious. Gene Nelson is also great as her boyfriend Will, and Eddie Albert gives an amusing vaudeville-style performance as the peddler, though that style of ethnic humour has dated more badly than the rest of the movie.
So what about the 1999 remake? I really enjoyed this version too, which does give the feeling of what it must have been like to see the stage production – complete with shots of the audience at the start and end, and also at the interval (the UK TV station Sky Arts showed it with just one ad break in the interval, so that the flow wasn’t damaged by interruptions.) The songs have clearly been recorded separately and the soundtrack is sometimes just a little out of synch with the lip movements, but this does make for a wonderful sound quality, even if at moments it is slightly disconcerting. Hugh Jackman’s performance as Curly is undoubtedly the standout, full of star quality. This was just before he became a household name as Wolverine in X-Men, but, listening to his voice in this, it seems a pity he hasn’t had the opportunity to do more singing on screen. Maybe he will do so now in the wake of Les Miserables. Much-loved British comedy actress Maureen Lipman is also great as Aunt Eller. Most of the rest of the cast are not instantly recognisable names, but they give fine performances, especially Josefina Gabrielle as a tomboy version of Laurey, always in dungarees, and Vicki Simon as a mischievous Ado Annie. Peter Polycarpou, who is well-known in the UK for both stage and TV work, has some fun with the role of Ali Hakim, though of course there is the same problem with the dated ethnic humour as in the earlier version.
This version is 180 minutes long and restores a couple of songs which were dropped for the original film – the amusing It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage and Jud’s Lonely Room, a ballad which suddenly casts the creepy stalker in a more sympathetic light for a few moments, as he sings about his loneliness and his longing to have a girl of his own.
“And I’m better’n that smart-aleck cowhand
Who thinks he is better’n me,
And the girl I want
Ain’t afraid of my arms,
And her own soft arms keep me warm.
And her long, yeller hair
Falls across my face
Jist like the rain in a storm…”
I don’t think Rod Steiger’s singing would have been equal to this song, but Shuler Hensley, who plays Jud in the 1999 film (one of only two Americans in the cast) , has a powerful voice which does it justice. He achieves the difficult job of making the character of Jud just as repulsive as he ought to be and yet showing his loneliness and pain at the same time.
As well as the restoration of the two missing songs, the lyrics of some of the other songs are franker, and the pictures on Jud’s wall are downright pornographic – while Laurey’s dream ballet is inspired by her sniffing the smelling salts given her by the peddler, so that there is a drug overtone to this sequence. The ballet sequence has been completely rechoreographed for this version. I don’t remember the dancing in the 1955 film well enough now to compare the two, but the one in the 1999 film does a good job in bringing out the unspoken desires and fears of all the characters, and is also full of colour and humour.
All in all, I love both film versions of this great musical, and will now hope to see it on stage.
And just to finish with, here are links to videos of Gordon MacRae and Hugh Jackman’s versions of what is probably my favourite song from the musical, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.